Alasdair Coyne, the unstoppable founder and director of Keep Sespe Wild Committee (KSWC), shared this good news for hikers in his June newsletter. The entire article is reprinted below. Kudos to Alasdair and KSWC for the years they put into fighting for our right to free public access to undeveloped trailheads. You can subscribe to the newsletter or, even better, become a supporter of their work at www.sespewild.org.
COURT SETTLEMENT GUARANTEES FREE PUBLIC ACCESS TO SO. CAL. UNDEVELOPED FOREST LANDS
After two years of negotiations, a settlement was finally signed in June between the U.S. Forest Service and the four plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the Adventure Pass forest fee program, as administered by the four Southern California National Forests. The result is that forest visitors may now enjoy free access to undeveloped forest lands, even when their favorite trailheads are next to car campgrounds & picnic areas.
This is the culmination of twenty years of activism against forest fee programs, beginning with 1996’s Recreation Fee Demo Program, the brainchild of a group of corporate interests, including Disney, which sought to commercialize Americans’ relationship with their federal public lands. Citizen outcry was swift and strong from Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, Colorado and beyond. A bipartisan coalition of Western (and N.H.) legislators worked to roll back the Fee Demo Program, and when its successor fee program, the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) was passed by Congress in 2004, the new law expressly prohibited the U.S. Forest Servive from charging fees for access to undeveloped public lands.
The U.S. Forest Service, however, just kept right on charging fees wherever they wanted to – including for access to undeveloped areas. Citizen opposition
to this egregious situation led to a lawsuit filed in federal court in Tucson, where a judge ruled in 2012 that the agency had to guarantee free public access to those undeveloped areas. This ruling was binding in nine western states – but, guess what, the U.S. Forest Service (beyond Arizona) kept right on charging those fees that were prohibited, and ticketing cars without passes. So a new lawsuit was filed, based on the Tucson case’s clear precedent, against the four Southern California National Forests’ Adventure Pass fee program.
In 2014 federal judge Terry Hatter ruled in favor of free public access to our enormous local acreage of undeveloped forest lands, and a settlement process began. But the U.S. Forest Service was still not about to surrender willingly the money stream coming in from Adventure Pass fees (which were meant to go to local facility improvements, though these rarely manifested).
In the end the plaintiffs in the lawsuit put in countless hours visiting and photographing 66 car campgrounds & picnic areas adjacent to forest trailheads in Southern California, and making suggestions as to where it was viable to place signage for free trailhead parking. In some cases, due to narrow roads, etc., this has meant a short walk to the trailhead. The Dept. of Justice attorneys representing the U.S. Forest Service understood that this was the only way to meet the letter of the FLREA fee law and to reach a settlement with plaintiffs.
The U.S. Forest Service will begin to place signage designating the free trailhead parking this summer, and they say they will not enforce Adventure Pass compliance at those 66 sites (mostly in the Angeles Forest) until the signs are up. They will also bring their websites up to date with this new situation.
LOCAL LOS PADRES CHANGES
In Los Padres Forest the only site to see changes according to the new settlement is Piedra Blanca Trailhead in Rose Valley north of Ojai –gateway to the middle Sespe. You may say, quite rightly, that this site is only a trailhead and no camping is allowed. However, the settlement allows for signed and free parking before you enter the current parking area. We are fortunate that all other forest access trailheads in the Ojai Ranger District are already fee free.
In Santa Barbara County, the Paradise Road access will remain under fee control at the concessionaire kiosk, whether you are camping or just hiking. The concessionaire agreement is a legally-binding document for a specific time period that does not allow for modifications. On the whole, the settlement is of major benefit to the public.